After reluctantly cutting our time in Vietnam short, we were deciding between two options: end our travels and return to an uncertain life back in the States, or cautiously make our way back to America while seeing as much of the world as we could. Since we were already 8,000 miles from California, we chose the latter option and booked a flight to Taipei, Taiwan.
Situated in the middle of the East China Sea, Taiwan has a busy recent history. The Netherlands, Spain, China, and Japan all staked their claim to the island over the last 400 years. Born from the remnants of the Republic of China following the Chinese Civil War in 1949, modern Taiwan progressed from single-party rule to a full-fledged democracy in 1996 after a series of democratic reforms. This forms the backdrop to modern Taiwan – a young democratic experiment of 24 million people at the convergence of Chinese and Japanese culture and history.
Although we originally had not planned to visit Taiwan, we decided to make Taipei our final international port before returning home amid the 2020 pandemic. We learned to keep flexible while traveling, and this impromptu trip to Taiwan kept our spirits high as the world started shutting down. Spanning the northern valleys and hills of Taiwan, Taipei is a sprawling metropolis built mostly over the last 60 years. Sometimes overwhelming, Taipei gives off a larger-than-life feel while we navigated its extensive transit system and constant density. Considering its roots, the city aesthetic and vibe falls somewhere between Tokyo and Hong Kong.
We chose to make the hip, Harajuku-esque neighborhood of Ximending our home base, and struck out to see how this city ticked over two days. We would have loved to stay longer, but a growing concern over the pandemic sent us packing far too early. That said, we have a two-week all-island itinerary set for our return!
Taipei by Day
Walking south from Ximending, we felt dwarfed by the heavy, dense buildings packed tightly together. Apartment blocks extended over sidewalks, surrounding pedestrians as they shuffled from shop to shop. It seemed as though every other entry led to a half dozen floors of restaurants and offices crammed around its stairwell (we spent many confused minutes searching for our destination to learn it’s tucked away in some nondescript behemoth of a building). It all felt like walking down a beefier, heavier version of Manhattan.
As we neared our first destination, the famed Mengjia Longshan Temple, we departed the densely packed apartment blocks and crossed through street and indoor markets, ornate gates, and busy plazas. Our journey took us an hour by foot, but we felt like we had traversed the entire city. In reality, we just barely got our feet wet.
Mengjia Longshan Temple
First built in 1738 by Fujian immigrants, the Mengjia Longshan Temple is a vibrant palace complex walled off from the urban chaos. The ornate temple structures stood in stark contrast to the monotonous towers peering into the establishment. The bright green ferns, dramatic figures, and koi-filled waterfall pond provided the perfect antidote to the density and hustle outside.
After touring the temple quarters, we hopped on Taipei Metro – an immaculate, fast, and efficient system connecting all corners of Taipei. A quick ride deeper into the city’s core brought us to Liberty Square. Although built by the Chinese Nationalists in the late 1970s, this largest public gathering space in Taipei became a symbol of democratic unity as Taiwan transitioned out of single-party rule through the 1980s. The Wild Lily student movement of 1990 started here, and it drove significant reforms that led to the first presidential election in 1996.
The sprawling grounds include Chiang Kai-shek memorial hall, the National theater and concert hall, pristine gardens, and historical monuments. It felt like we were walking through the Taiwanese version of the Washington Mall – we even caught the lowering of the flag as the day closed!
Although we didn’t make it to Tokyo during this trip, Xiemding felt close to the real thing. We spent two nights in the bustling, brightly-lit pedestrian zone, eating our way through the neighborhood. Every corner barks for your attention – Japanese imports leap out from storefronts and students pour out of the Metro in search of gadgets, street food, and drinks.
We had our fill of Taiwanese-style fried chicken, gooey pig intestine soup, xiao long boa soup dumplings, crispy duck ramen, and rich boba teas. In between desperately searching for hidden bars and just plain hard-to-find eateries, we unloaded our New Taiwanese Dollars on the myriad of claw machine arcades scattered throughout the neighborhood. We didn’t stay out too late, but we hear that the vibrant LGBT community flocks to Xiemding to let loose.
Xiemding was the perfect neighborhood for us to call home while in Taipei – its great location, ease of Metro access, shopping, nightlife, and delicious food make for an ideal Taiwanese microcosm in this otherwise sprawling Asian city.
Taipei surprised us. Its dense streets and lively atmosphere gave us a glimpse into Taiwanese culture, and we’re hooked! Taiwan’s modern democratic strength stands in stark contrast to Mainland China’s one-party rule. Its colonial heritages still heavily influence the urban culture, and the city’s meteoric growth over the last half century is evident at every turn.
Yes, we had a great time. Yes, we planned on another two weeks of adventures all around Taiwan. Yes, we had to flee home sooner than anticipated. And, yes, we will absolutely return to Taipei on our way back East.